The Secret (2.18)
“If we weren’t already dead, Theodore, you’d be the death of us!”
WHAT IS IT?
A mischievous young orphan is adopted by an eccentric, rich couple, and one or more parties have a secret.
Directing is a pretty great Production Designer, J Michael Riva, who’s worked on probably a dozen movies you love, from Buckaroo Bonzai to Lethal Weapon to Scrooged to A Few Good Men to the Iron Man films. The lead child actor is unknown Mike Simmrin, but a couple of key supporting roles are played by eternally employed character actress Grace Zabriskie (Big Love) and friend of the show, portly golem Larry Drake. Everyone else is frankly just not interesting.
HOW IS IT?
One of the best things about Tales from the Crypt was that week to week, the style of the horror stories being presented would change. Some stories typically got more play than others; voodoo curses, murderous golddiggers, and ‘surprise, they’re all ghouls!’ tended to get pretty familiar. But there were practically no subgenres or classic horror conceits that went unutilized over the seven season run. Just in the back third of season two, there’s a circus freak episode, a Hitchcock crime thriller, a play on the final broadcast device, a slapstick comedy, and a pair of children’s stories, the hilariously broken Korman’s Kalamity and The Secret. While this isn’t exactly one for the ages, it works a whole hell of a lot better than Korman, and the titular secret, which could easily be super dumb, has just the right Halloween logic to provide a solid (if predictable) twist.
The episode makes its intentions clear in the Crypt Keeper segment, with CK reading from Oliver Twist and complaining that it lacks any twists. And indeed, the story begins with just such an unwanted orphan, Theodore, a husky, rambunctious lad, already more or less aged out of the desirable range for prospective adopters. Theo’s something of a terror at the local orphanage, presided over by two types, a Sour Old Maid and a Pretty Young Woman Who Cares. They hold the expected pro-and-con attitudes about Theodore, with the Sour Old Maid laying on some foreshadowing-heavy complaints about his bad attitude and the terrible secret of his birth parents, who must never be spoken of. Already, the episode’s big finish has been hinted at a bit too much, but then there’s also a sequence where Theodore wakes up outside covered in mud with no memory of how he got there. Oh well. Pretty much all of this is TMI, and the episode spends far too much time here.
Rather out of the blue, Theodore is promptly adopted by the Colberts, a strange wealthy couple. Mr. Colbert is largely a silent nonentity for the episode, but Mrs. Colbert is played with Tim Burton-y relish by Zabriskie, and you might wish there was a little more of her. Accompanying them is their fancy butler, Tobias (Drake). At this point, the episode has a lot less in common with Dickens than it does with the broad theatricality of the Annie musical (indeed, a showstopper would not be out of place in this one). Once they’ve taken Theodore home to their mansion (and credit to the production team, it actually looks like a mansion), they promptly lock him in a room full of toys and make themselves scarce.
Yes, despite their indulgent gift-giving, the Colberts are oddly distant and pre-occupied for foster parents, with no clear interest in raising a child, so the day to day particulars fall to Tobias the butler. The only directive seems to be that Theodore eats rich foods often. This in particular is hammered home quite insistently, and occasionally the episode borders on subpar food porn, slightly disconcerting when the visuals are a Skut Farcus lookalike eating from a bottomless éclair platter. Theodore finds this spoiling ultimately hollow, and his loneliness drives him to befriend Tobias. Tobias seems aloof about this development, but is ultimately won over by Theodore’s…I’m going with youthful zeal? This relationship should be the heart of the story, but it’s given short shrift; the characters have one and a half scenes together. They should have developed this and cut the superfluous orphanage first act.
Finally, the Colberts appear to show an interest. Theodore’s put on some pounds, they say (invisible pounds to us), and they bring him a giant birthday cake for celebration. ‘But it’s not my birthday!’ says Theodore. ‘That’s why it’s a surprise!’ counters Mrs. Colbert. Theodore then overhears them in the hallway, slightly spazzing out in anticipation of sharing their secret with him, that very night. When the night rolls around though, Tobias beats them to it. He grabs Theodore and screams that they have to get out of there, before it’s too late. Theodore, several steps behind the audience, asks why, but the answer becomes self evident when we run into Mrs. Colbert on the stairwell, lit to look sexual and tragic, and sporting a pair of fangs (the secret is that they’re vampires). She scolds Tobias, who apparently was in on the whole eat-Theodore scheme, and in exchange, they were going to make him immortal. It’s unclear why they didn’t just eat Tobias, as he looks like about five Theodores. Regardless, it appears he’s too full of the lard of human kindness to go through with it, so the Colberts rip out his throat.
Theodore, pernicious scamp that he is, escapes to the yard, chased by the Halloween vampire theatrics of Mr. Colbert. Seriously, he turns into Count Floyd at the end, gliding around on his coat tails and sporting the tallest, dippiest Dracula collar you’ve ever seen. Theodore leads the chase into a woodlin clearing where he reveals he has a secret of his own: he’s a werewolf! And werewolf beats vampire every time. Having thus turned the tables, Theodore eats the Colberts, in a halfway decent sequence that easily trumps what little I’ve seen of the Underworld movies. Then, in an unnecessary coda, Theodore returns to the orphanage and threatens the Sour Old Maid, like the new Sheriff in town.
It’s a decent ending, as far as it goes, damn near exactly what you might see in Goosebumps. And I don’t mean that as a negative, it would be a pretty badass Goosebumps episode. And it gets mileage from mimicking the best. More than Dickens or Annie, what this episode feels most like something from Roald Dahl, maybe The Witches, or the BFG, with Larry Drake as the titular friendly homunculus (Big Fugly Giant?). Theodore defeats his foes not by being good, smart, or virtuous, but by being a fucking lycanthrope. It could have really used another rewrite, but overall, it’s more fun than it should be, and like Dahl, I could see this speaking to the right kind of imaginative kid.
There are evil women, but there’s also a nice woman, and it honestly seems more driven by plot and character than resentment over missing out on a Y chromosome. Pretty low, all things considered. Just wait till next season.
ALSO WORTH NOTING:
*Mr. Colbert is played by a dude named William Frankfather, which is not a good name.
*If I had to describe this episode like I was in The Player, it would be ‘Hansel and Gretel meets Orphan meets Underworld!’ Not too shabby.
*That wraps up Season 2. It’s got some classics that are oddly memorable, but on the whole, I think it’s kinda weak, at least next to 3 & 4. They get some bigger talent, and much bigger balls.
WORST CRYPT KEEPER JOKE:
“As one cow said to another as they headed off to slaughter, ‘Till next we MEAT!’”
An episode of Goosebumps is right, and not even one of the better ones. The main thing that sinks the whole affair for me is Mike Simmrin’s horrible performance. Kid or not, it’s the worst acting I’ve seen in the series yet. He delivers every line like he’s reading it off cue-cards just off screen. But beyond that, all of the characters are horribly underwritten. Theodore, Tobias, Mrs. Colbert, none of them feel like actual people and I couldn’t name a single personality trait between them. It doesn’t reach The Sacrifice levels of uselessness, but I’d definitely say it’s one of the worst so far, and a pretty disappointing way to close out the season.